Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

The Third Way: Digital Small Presses

In all the emotionally fraught discussions of the past few weeks about the making the choice between traditional and self publishing, there’s been very little discussion about the fact that there is a third option. It’s not either turn down an advance with low digital royalties OR self-publish. Authors who don’t want to self-publish but either don’t get an offer from a traditional publisher or don’t want to hassle with trying do have an alternative–especially in romance–and that’s the digital small presses.

It’s sort of ironic that I feel I have to point out the availability of digital small presses given that they are in many ways responsible for paving the way for self-publishing. The folks who created the first digital publishing houses were taking a huge risk, because at the time (the late 1990s at the earliest), digital books were still a novelty and ereaders as we know them now hadn’t even been invented yet. Still, many of these digital presses built an audience, especially in romance and erotic romance, where they undoubtedly benefited from making sales to folks who were embarrassed to buy “those” books in bookstores with clerks staring them down. And they were definitely the first to test the proposition that books could be profitable without a print component. No, they didn’t pay advances (which made RWA and some other writers’ organizations view them askance for many years), but they offered much better royalty rates per sale than the then still primarily print traditional publishers, and as more and more readers experienced digital books and as ereaders began to come out, some authors started making really good money with those publishers.

Now, I could go into a really long spiel at this point about how not all digital small presses are created equal, but I’m not going to bore you with it. Instead, I’m going to list the four things I think are most important when choosing a digital publisher:

  1. Pricing

    I’m a firm believer in sensible pricing for digital books. I grant you, everyone’s meter for sensible may differ in this particular case, but I personally fall into the “cheap” camp and as a self-publisher, I price my books accordingly. This means I don’t want to run with a digital press that prices its books substantially higher than I would (say, no more than 20% higher). My sensible price range is as follows:

    • 5,000-25,000 words — free to 99 cents
    • 25,000-40,000 words — 99 cents to $1.99
    • 40,000-65,000 words — $2.99 to $3.99
    • 70,000+ — $3.99 to $4.99 (possibly $5.99 if it’s 100k+, but you have to be my favorite author ever to get me to pay that; just sayin’)

    So, basically, I won’t sign with digital publishers whose pricing doesn’t fall into these ranges. That’s not to say that they are bad publishers; it’s just to say that I don’t feel the higher per sale royalty makes up for the lost sales due to the price point being outside what I consider the “impulse buy” zone. Once you’re outside the impulse buy zone, IMO, you either have to be a very well-known author with a large following OR your publisher has to have a strong brand and your book has to pretty much perfectly reflect that brand. Getting those last two right can be tricky.

  2. Packaging
  3. Do you like the publisher’s cover art? Is it eye-catching and attractive? Look at a lot of the covers. Do they stand out in a crowd? Do they properly convey the genre and mood? Obviously, every publisher is going to have a few covers you don’t like, but don’t bother submitting to a publisher if you think the majority of their covers suck, because they are going to create a cover for your book that you think sucks. Cover art is part of your publishers’ brand, which means those covers you hate aren’t an accident.

    Also part of packaging are the product descriptions. Are the cover “blurbs” enticing? Interesting? And, perhaps most important, grammatically correct? Some digital small presses expect their authors to write their own cover copy and don’t do a whole lot of editorial or provide much assistance. That’s easy to see if you find a lot of variation in the quality of the book descriptions within a publisher. The more consistency you find in the quality of the blurbs, the more likely it is that someone is shepherding the process. This is an important aspect of marketing and we aren’t all good at doing this for ourselves. Not being good at yourself is a good reason for not self-publishing, but if your publisher isn’t going to offer any input, you might as well self-publish when it comes to this aspect.

  4. Editing
  5. Before submitting to any publisher, you should read some of their books. Partly, this is to get a sense of their brand, as I mentioned above. You need to know this because every book isn’t well-served by every small press. Some do better with certain genres and themes than others. You need to know where you’ll fit into their list.

    But you also want to be sure that they have high quality editorial. If you only read one book and it’s good, that doesn’t necessarily indicate great editorial. It indicates either this book was edited by someone who’s very good or that the author is an excellent self-editor. Either way, that doesn’t mean you’ll get said great editor or that you are a great self-editor. So read several cover to cover and sample more. You want to see consistency in editorial quality across the board. If you don’t see it, it’s not a good place for you book, even if you are a great self-editor. Publishers with poor editorial quality get a reputation for it. Even if your book is an exception, readers who’ve experience that poor quality may choose not to buy your book because it comes from that publisher.

  6. Financial Stuff
  7. Before submitting (but definitely before signing), you should contact some authors who are published by the publisher you’re considering. Ask them if they’re paid in a timely manner, how they like working with the publishers, and what (if any) complaints they have. Make sure you contact authors who are selling poorly as well as those who are selling well. The ones who are selling well and making a lot of money are probably inclined to be more generous if there are any warning flags. You’re likely to get a more unvarnished opinion from someone in the middle or the bottom of the heap.

    In addition, make sure you understand the publishers’ royalty structure. Any contract that pays you on “net” instead of “list” price is a tricky proposition, because you can’t know how much you’ll get paid for each sale unless you know what the publishers’ net is, and if the publishers’ net changes, your royalties will change, too.

As most of you know, I have one book with Entangled Publishing and another one on the way. When the second is wrapped up, I plan to write another in the same series, and I’m hoping Entangled will be interested in publishing it despite my labor pains with this second book :).

I imagine, though, that some of you wonder why I’d work with a digital publisher when I’ve done pretty well as a self-publisher. The primary reason was pretty simple–I was breaking out into a new subgenre I’m not well known for (contemporary romance) and I knew Entangled brought something to the table I didn’t have. To wit, they have truly developed a “brand” for their imprints and have many loyal customers who read practically every book in their favorite lines. In other words, I knew that having SKIN IN THE GAME in Entangled’s Brazen line would bring readers to it that I would never find on my own. And I was right about that. First week sales for that book were several times more than any other book I’ve published. And the novella I put out myself in October has done quite poorly, especially by comparison (not that I’ve done a lot to promote it, but still…). If you haven’t guessed already, I am quite happy with Entangled. Yes, not having control over every aspect of production is hard for me now, but the trade-off has been more than worth it.

It’s fashionable nowadays to say that the publisher doesn’t matter. I think that’s true in some cases, but I’m quite confident in saying that in the case of Entangled, the publisher IS the difference. I am truly grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to work with such a wonderful group of people and a publisher that really walks the talk in terms of communicating with and supporting its authors. I haven’t said this enough before, but I’m saying it now: Thank you, Entangled!

P.S. A late Happy Birthday to Liz Pelletier, Entangled’s owner and founder!

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